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Have You Seen…? Episode 3

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Have You Seen…? is a regular conversation between former filmmaker and educator David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf about classic Hollywood film. Today they look at Film Noir with one of the greatest from the genre.

[Clip from Out of the Past]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Out of the Past?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen out of the past, but I have not seen it for probably 30 plus years. It was a film that in the 1980's was one of my favorite film noir and also probably my favorite Robert Mitchum film. And I can't remember the plot.

DH: Yeah. Well, like many film noirs it's a pretty complicated plot. It is an early film in Mitchell's career. He was he was a leading actor by then not too famous. It's only the second or third film for Kirk Douglas who really set up his screen persona as kind of nasty character in this. And Jane Greer is the female protagonist…

SVW: ..who was kind of the quintessential femme fatal.

DH: She was. You think she might be OK, the Robert Mitchum character gets strung along and think she's wonderful, but she is lying and duplicitous, and…is this femme fatal, a French term meaning a fatal woman or an evil woman…a kind of character type that really goes back to Eve the Bible or Pandora in Greek mythology, introducing evil. But what's interesting about it, it's iconic film noir, it has all the all the basic stuff: a tough guy detective, dangerous woman, a complicated plot involving fleeing to Mexico and money. And it's beautiful to look at, which is another characteristic of noir.

SVW: Today on Have You Seen we're talking about film noir, one of the most iconic film genres or sub genres within the crime and mystery element. And it was only a brief genre. It really pretty much was the 40's in the 50's even though the elements of film noir live on today in in various aspects, and of course there’s neo-noir. But it really was the 40's in the 50's wasn’t it David?

DH: It really was, I mean, a classic way of, almost cliché way of dating film noir was that it began with the Maltese Falcon in 1941, the Humphrey Bogart movie, really the movie that made Bogart a star…

SVW: …directed by John Houston

DH: Directed by John Houston. The year after that is when Bogart did Casablanca. And then from ‘41 and then ending with Orson Welles Touch of Evil in 1958, you know, you don't have to…there's people argue there's a couple true film noirs a little earlier than Falcon and a couple true noirs after Touch of Evil. So basically it's the 1940's and 50's and particularly from the mid 40's on with the post-war period to the 50's. And of course, they it has to be in black and white to qualify as a film noir.

SVW: You have a precise definition of film noir.

DH: Yeah, actually, I decided I would look it up, you know, because it’s a little harder to define… I mean American cinema, Hollywood cinema, is very much a cinema of genres, right. And some of them are just obvious right away a Westerners a Westerner. If there is singing and dancing, it's a musical, you know, action adventure, you know, romantic comedy, but noir is almost defined….Yeah. It's sort of a crime genre. It's sort of a follow-up to gangster films and so forth and detective films. But it's really more defined by its style. I decided oh okay I will look it up and here's the dictionary definition of film noir, a type of crime film featuring cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting and an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background music. And then it goes on to say a style or genre film marked by a mood pessimism, fatalism and menace. And it also tells us that this term was originally coined by French film critics in the United States. It was just if you went to the movies in the 40's 50's, you just saw these are these kind of interesting crying films, you know, mysterious

SVW: And they were frequently the B and C movies as well.

DH: Right frequently. They were.

SVW: Because people saw double triple features. That was the entertainment. There was no TV. They went to the movies. They’d see 3 movies in a row.

DH: Yeah. I mean, the classic film program was, you know, there were there were newsreels, there are cartoons or previews and there was always an A picture and a B picture and those very much also to find the cost of the star quality and all that and a lot of them would be pictures, but these French film critics in the 60's. Many of them, the ones that went on to become film directors themselves in the French new wave recognize this sort of the genre, this sort of type of film that was that have been made for 15, 20 years in Hollywood that were really interesting. You know, stylistically story wise and different than than some of the more mainstream films that portrayed things in a more positive light that they sort of portrayed a darker side to American culture.

SVW: And these were films that were they… began after the beginning of World War 2. They came on the heels of the Great Depression and prohibition.

DH: And so they did portray certain darker sides to human nature and to culture. I mean that the protagonist of a film noir is sometimes of… say a male antihero, you know, they're not really heroes in the may be a tough boil hard you know, guy like a detective or something, but that might not be a completely honest detective or they might just be a small time criminal, you know, flawed manipulated circumstance by circumstance, especially dragged around by their own like libido and sexual drive. And that's where you get the classic femme fate, how the almost cliché now character of the woman whose loring them along often contrasted it talk about in the past with a good female character. Who's the better option for the guy, but he just can't help himself. He's lured by the excitement of this other woman and often lured to his death.

[Clip from Out of the Past]

SVW: The femme fatal character was attacked by feminists. But then later embraced by them because they realized these were women with power.

DH: It's a really interesting sort of dynamic right. At first, some critics feminist critic started saying this is terrible. I mean, you're basically before protraying women either as they're totally good or they're totally evil and the evil ones are often given the front row seat in. It's a terrible portrayal of women.

But then some others started to say well wait a minute. You notice these are actually unlike many other movies. These are movies were women actually have some power and they're often the lead characters. And sometimes there put in the position they're in and have no other choice, which is kind of what you have the finding out of the past that the character she is bad. She does live. She robbed. She steals she kills. But you realize she's completely trapped by the circumstances that of the world, the men of created around her.

SVW: And you mentioned the stylistic aspects of how this genre is defined by style and the style is the black and white Cinematography the way that's light in shot.

DH: If you look at the movie movies from earlier from the 1930's the gangster movies which gangster movies from the 30's are a big influence on film noir. But you'll notice they're very high key lighting that even a night scene that the main characters that are in the center of the screen will be brightly lit. Film noir, it took a turn heard in the late 30's and early 40's with some great cinematographers like Gregg Toland who was who shot citizen Kane. And if you watch citizen Kane, which is not a film noir but you'll notice lots of really dark. Scenes, they're not afraid of the dark. The characters where you can barely see their faces at all and they are just a thin line of light. We're… you know.. the cliché light through the Venetian blinds with slashes of like just a single source of light and they are very influenced by like German expressionism and also by the sort of sensibility that went with that.

SVW: And if there's any film that has a narration where the main character is narrating the film that also kind of goes back to the film noir as well where you had the detectives. It's the movie is a flashback.

DH: Which brings us back to out of the past on the pass. The voice-over narrator is a classic one in, you know where you see some establishing thing in and out of the past. You see Robert Mitchum was just as nice guy with a nice girlfriend. Living up in the mountains in California and run in a gas station and all of a sudden this guy in a trench coat shows up and says you got to come back and see that guy again. And so she drives in his girlfriend drives him to this meeting up near Lake Tahoe with who we find is a gangster on and he on the way. He starts telling her the stories like I haven't told you everything about myself and then almost the whole movie is a flashback 2 when he was a detective and he went cent to go find this gangster's girlfriend who actually shot him and stole his money. And he finds are in Mexico and she's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. And he literally at one point she says something about, you know, maybe I'm not all you think I am.

And he literally says baby. I don't care haha and that he just he's just strung too long, which is again, the classic male antihero kind of jerk in these movies until it comes to a stunning conclusion with, as I said before things you might not have suspected about her and just gorgeously shot.

SVW: Out of the past directed by Jacques to the aid starring Robert mention, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas Rhonda Fleming. It was made in 1947. Thanks, David.

DH: Thank you.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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